Total Pageviews

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pakistan's ordinary rebel

Pakistan's sacked chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, centre, waves to supporters outside his Islamabad residence March 16, 2009 after the government agreed to reinstate him in a surprise move to stem political turmoil.

He's 'no superhero' but chief judge has become unlikely icon in turbulent country
Mar 17, 2009 04:30 AM
Be the first to comment on this article... Olivia Ward FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER
With his slightly unfocused eyes, austere demeanour and conservative wardrobe, Iftikhar Chaudhry is an unlikely icon for volatile Pakistan.
But in his turbulent four-year term as the country's top judge he has faced down two leaders, spent months behind barbed wire under house arrest, and become the game-changer of Pakistani politics without ever running for election.
Yesterday, President Asif Ali Zardari caved in to mounting public and political pressure to reinstate the popular Supreme Court chief justice, effective this Saturday, after a coalition of supporters threatened a "long march" on the capital, if Chaudhry's two-year exile from the court wasn't ended.
"Chaudhry is no superhero, but he's the symbol of defying authoritarian rule," said Mohammad Abdul Qadeer of Queen's University. "This time he's really dented the government."
Former president Pervez Musharraf was the first to clamp down disastrously on Chaudhry in 2007, after he and other judges refused to take an oath under an amended constitution they deemed illegal. Chaudhry refused to quit and was arrested, but millions rallied to his cause and he became the high-profile face of rule of law in Pakistan.
"Is he charismatic, or just a political football?" asked Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor, a global intelligence analysis firm. "I think the answer is both."
The firing backfired, and Musharraf himself marched from office a step ahead of impeachment charges – a defeat that only enhanced Chaudhry's reputation.
Assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, campaigning for a political comeback, said she would reinstate the judge. But her widower, Zardari, failed to do so after he took office. Chaudhry's victory has shaken Zardari's position, but boosted Nawaz Sharif, an opposition leader and former prime minister. But the brightest spotlight fell on Chaudhry.
"He wasn't really outstanding as a lawyer," said Qadeer, author of Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation. "And in the beginning he seemed to be quite conformist."
Growing up in the western city of Quetta, Chaudhry, now 61, worked his way up the provincial legal ladder to become a judge of the Balochistan High Court in 1990. In 2005 he moved to Pakistan's Supreme Court, and sat on the bench that rubber-stamped Musharraf's military rule.
But Chaudhry had a surprising conversion, taking on controversial cases that embarrassed the government and challenged tradition and authority – from "honour crimes" against women, to a controversial privatization deal by former prime minister Shaukat Aziz, and the secret detention of terror suspects, some of whom were later released.
By the time he was arrested, Chaudhry was the poster child of civil liberties in Pakistan. Even his battered Mitsubishi, wrote Time magazine, "was a national icon, its number plate a shorthand for a nationwide debate on the role of the military in government."
Detention with his wife and four children behind barbed wire barricades, surrounded by armed police, did nothing to shut out public interest. And nation-wide protests led to an election, and the end of Musharraf's career.
Now rumours are circulating about Chaudhry's future. Although he vowed to immediately return to work, reports say the increasingly popular Sharif would like to bring him into the political arena.
"He is indeed an icon now, and expectations are very high," said Harvard research fellow Hassan Abbas. But, he adds, "things won't change overnight."
The divisions created by the furor over Chaudhry's reinstatement could make things worse for Pakistani politics, unless there is swift political reconciliation, Abbas said.
With files from the Star's wire services

No comments: